One of the main characteristics that distinguish character disturbed individuals from more well-adjusted and even more “neurotic” folks is the unhealthy and imbalanced sense of self-worth they possess. And when someone has an unwarranted or inflated opinion of him or herself, problems in relationships are inevitable, as are problems for society at large. But very few understand how modern culture’s tendency to heap attention and praise on folks for all the wrong things contributes to the problems many have developing a healthy sense of self worth.
In last week’s post on Merit, Virtue and Character, I mentioned that I would be re-visiting the issue of meritorious conduct and the importance of recognizing and reinforcing such conduct when trying to assist someone in developing their character. But before I explore that issue a little more, I’d like to share with you a true story:
A couple of weeks ago I was with some friends and acquaintances at a small gathering. One of the individuals there, with whom I have a cordial but not particularly close relationship, began talking about the problems she had been having with her daughter. But as she talked about this young woman, who is on the verge of turning 35 years old yet is still having major problems functioning well in life, I was struck by many of the things she was saying: “She’s such a special and gifted child. She’s so smart…, smarter than any of her brothers, and smarter than me by a mile. And she’s such a gifted artist, not to mention drop dead gorgeous. I’m in awe of her. I’ve told her all the time just how special she is. I’ve told her every since she was a little girl. It breaks my heart that her life is such a shipwreck.” I had to hold my tongue, but there were so many things I wanted to say to this woman. You see, after many years working with character-impaired young persons and their families, it became all too clear me some time ago what kinds of interpersonal “dynamics” help shape the little monsters some youngsters become.
Nothing is more toxic to the ego than affording positive attributions to something for which a person cannot legitimately claim credit. This is a major principle I outline in my book Character Disturbance, and it is, in fact, a big part of one of what I term the “Ten Commandments of Character Development” (see also: The Ten Commandments of Character). When you recognize, afford attention to, or praise a person for something only nature, a higher power, or God (if you’re so inclined to believe) can justly claim credit, you automatically help distort their sense of self-worth. In both my books Character Disturbance and In Sheep’s Clothing, I make a careful distinction between self-esteem, which generally arises out of one’s intuitive appraisal of one’s innate abilities, attributes, and strengths, and self-respect, which can only arise from one’s retrospective assessment of the value of what what has done with what one has been given. Unfortunately, I know all too many troubled characters who ooze unwarranted self-esteem but justifiably have no grounds for legitimate self-respect. No one can claim credit for the neurological wiring that afforded them a 130 I.Q. or piercing blue eyes. But what someone chooses to do in life, the consideration they give to making the more pro-social choices, and the way they use the talents and abilities they have been blessed with, is to the person’s sole credit. The conscientious and noble exercise of our will: that’s the heart of meritorious conduct. And making the more socially responsible decision is generally the harder choice. But like any other behavior, if we recognize and reinforce someone for making the tougher, more correct choices, they’re likely to make them more often. Giving credit where credit is due is essential for the development of healthy self-appraisal. We need to recognize people much less for the desirable attributes they possess and reward them more for the right things they do.
Unfortunately, our culture almost completely ignores the value of meritorious conduct. This is really problematic because for some individuals, who are struggling hard with their character development issues, even some very small efforts on their part to do better constitute some significantly meritorious events. And they need to be reinforced for these small efforts if they are to persist in their moves toward self-improvement. But all too often we recognize or reward folks for all the wrong things. And the consequences of that are visible every day. If you really want to help bend someone’s ego pathologically out of shape here’s what you do:
- Recognize them for who they are, not what they do.
- Be enamored of their gifts, not of their difficult choices and actions.
- Send them the constant message that it’s what they bring to the table that really counts, not how they conduct themselves when they’re at the table.
I recently heard Charlie Sheen say in an interview that the mere fact that he’s sustained a successful 30-year career is proof positive that he is a “special person” He deftly sidestepped all of the crazy and obnoxious behaviors he’s known to have engaged in, some of which still occur, and even had the audacity to suggest that others should accept the fact that “special people” have “special problems.” Sadly, he wants us to judge him like he judges himself: based on what he can do, and not how he has conducted himself. And because his new TV series is likely to be funny and appeal to a certain audience, he’ll feel not only validated but rewarded for the perspective he holds. And those tuning in will have helped provide him yet another powerful reason not to change course or make of himself any different a person.